Mane of terror: the sorry return of long-haired men

Long hair has had a solid run in the menswear space going back, well, a couple million years. But what is it about long hair on certain men that just looks all wrong?

In recent weeks, you might have seen teaser photos for the second season of And Just Like That circulating on the internet, which reveal the return of Aidan Shaw, played by John Corbett. In one, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw and Shaw are striding hand-in-hand in the middle of a New York street, oblivious of the traffic. In another, Aidan is smoking a cigarette around brunch with the remaining “girls”.

Some fans have been intrigued by the return of “the one that got away” from the original Sex and the City series. Others are simply horrified. And it’s no surprise, given how he looked: brown shoes, plum-coloured trousers and a £600 Belstaff jacket overwhelmed by pockets and a frankly hideous belt. Also returning? His combed-back, longish hair.

In the original series, Aidan appeared as a proto-vibes guy – a sweet-natured man who worked with wood and owned a dog, and wore proper jeans with western shirts. His hair was too long, which seemed to be a problem for everyone except Carrie. Unlike previous boyfriends, he seemed un-vain, un-put together. Still, when he returned later in the series, with shorter hair, it was quite the improvement.

Corbett might be a handsome, successful fella with a prominent head. Indeed, the 61-year-old could glide through life wearing whatever he wants, even if it were purple trousers. He’s married to Bo Derek. But still, that hair. It’s just not good. I couldn’t help but wonder … maybe men’s hair can’t have it all?

Tommy Lee Royce from Happy Valley season 3.
Tommy Lee Royce from Happy Valley season 3. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Lookout Point

As with the outgrowth of beards which were discoursed to death circa 2014, there is something about long hair that sends a message, though the signals may get garbled: has the wearer let it flow because they’re simply too busy for a trim, and what will that mean for their personal relationships? Or did they consciously grow it long and then decide, actually, they look quite good this way? Perhaps he is just a real laidback guy who isn’t too bothered with conforming with the mores of contemporary style? Or is it all just performative non-vanity?

The answer is seldom cut and dried. I once heard someone’s personality being described as “creamy”: what I took that to mean is that they sat somewhere on a spectrum between cheesy and smooth (in, you know, a good way). Being creamy has a certain ooze that can go either direction; the flavour can be just right or it can curdle. You can’t always quite put your finger on it – but when you know, you know. Long hair on men follows a similar trajectory. Or, put more simply, man of the moment Paul Mescal can pull off a mullet while performing in A Streetcar Named Desire, but during the lockdown period of adjustment, Tony Blair could not.

Tony Blair on ITV News.
Tony Blair on ITV News. Photograph: ITV News

Of course, the symbolism of hair length can be in the eye of the beholder. As the story goes, in 1969, when the writer Hunter S Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen on a “freak power” ticket, long hair was the embodiment of radicals and hippies. He famously shaved himself bald so he could wryly refer to his crew-cut Republican rival as “my long-haired opponent”.

By contrast, the late David Crosby was a long-haired king who embodied the tousled, countercultural spirit of 60s folk and 70s classic rock. In a seminal track, Almost Cut My Hair, he wrote about letting his “freak flag fly” by keeping it long. He also kept the mane flowing until the very end. And yet such long hair can easily bouffant into the big hair of the much-maligned 80s hair metal era.

David Crosby on stage.
David Crosby on stage. Photograph: Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock

Most recently, in Happy Valley we found James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce in prison with a mid-length bob, somewhere between Charles Manson and Jesus. When he cut it ahead of his court date, viewers were suddenly reminded why his casting as the bad guy created such complicated feelings among viewers, who fancied and loathed him in equal measure.

And yet all these years on, amid a broad casualisation of style, long hair still seems vanishingly rare in the wider world. In the recent tumult of British politics, amid all the absurdity offered up by four prime ministers and dozens of PM candidates, one thing the Tory electorate wasn’t offered was a man with anything more than a side parting. Even Boris Johnson, whose hair wasn’t exactly long but certainly unruly, would occasionally try to vaguely signal that he was being really serious by getting a haircut.

In the current style cycle, everything manages to be in and out of fashion concurrently. Perhaps emboldened by men growing it out during the pandemic and then deciding to hold on to what they’ve got, long hair is having a moment just as soon as it’s being chopped away. As to whether it looks good; you’ll know it when you see it.


Larry Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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